OFF-SHORE BOARDING SCHOOLS
Parents, Shopping for Discipline, Turn to Tough Schools
Ryan Fraidenburgh was 14 when he was brought here shackled, kicking and
Two men carrying handcuffs and leg irons came for him at his mother's
home in Sacramento, Calif., shoved him into a van and bound him hand and
foot. They drove him 12 hours south, over the Mexican border, into a
high-walled compound near here called Casa by the Sea.
"It was nighttime," Ryan recalled. "I look around and I see kids
sleeping on cement. I was really, really scared. The big honcho,
Mauricio, said, `You don't speak English here.' I didn't know how to
Ryan quickly learned the rules: stay silent, be compliant, don't look
up, don't look out the window, don't speak unless spoken to. The
punishments for breaking the rules included solitary confinement, lying
on the floor in a small room, nose to the ground, often for days on end.
Ryan was not a criminal. He was only skipping school, his parents said
in telephone interviews. But in August 2000, they said, in the middle of
a bitter divorce and custody battle, they decided to send him away to
Casa by the Sea, which calls itself a "specialty boarding school" for
Like hundreds of other parents, the Fraidenburghs made their choice
largely on the basis of a glossy brochure and a call to a toll-free
number in Utah. They came to regret their choice.
The idea of sending a child to such a program in Mexico was unheard of a
decade ago. But in the United States, behavior-modification programs and
boarding schools for troubled youths have faced increasing legal and
licensing challenges over the past few years.
More and more are moving abroad some to Mexico, Central America or the
Caribbean where they operate largely under the regulation radar and
where some employ minimum-wage custodians more than teachers or
therapists, say government officials, education consultants and clinical
The behavior-modification business is booming at Casa by the Sea, on
Mexico's Pacific Coast, the largest of 11 affiliated programs with
roughly 2,200 youths, about half of them in Mexico, Costa Rica and
Jamaica. The programs are run by a small group of businessmen based in
St. George, Utah, under the banner of the World Wide Association of
Specialty Programs and Schools, or Wwasps, and Teen Help, the programs'
main marketing arm.
Over the past seven years, local governments and State Department
officials have investigated Wwasps-affiliated programs in Mexico, the
Czech Republic and Samoa on charges of physical abuse and immigration
violations. The Mexican program, in Cancún, and the Czech program
closed, and their owners left those countries saying they feared unjust
charges. The Samoan program cut its affiliation with Wwasps.
Ken Kay, the president of Wwasps, would not allow a reporter to visit
Casa by the Sea; Dace Goulding, the program's director, declined to
answer any questions. But Mr. Kay, responding to inquiries in writing
from his office in Utah, said no charge of abuse had ever been proven
against any of the programs in any court.
"We are about getting families back together," he said in a written
statement. "We are not for everyone, and there are very few but
vociferous critics of not just us but any youth intervention." He
described many of the program's critics as parents who feel they have
been "manipulated, brainwashed or duped" or who are battling through
divorce and taking their anger out "by making us look terrible."
In telephone interviews, eight teenagers who were formerly in Casa by
the Sea described a system in which the youths try to ascend six
"levels" through a system of rewards and punishments, including being
sent to "R and R," a small, bare isolation room, often for days on end.
Discipline, not education, was the rule, they said.
For Laura Hamel, 17, of Vienna, Va., who counts herself as a success
story, it was a slow two-year ascent to graduation in March. She said
she was demoted from Level 3 back to Level 1 after giving a weeping,
lonely friend a hug and a kiss on the cheek at Thanksgiving. Affection
of that kind is forbidden.
A youth who rises to Levels 4, 5 and 6 can become a "junior staff
member" and "participate in the discipline process" against lower-level
youths, Casa's contract with parents says.
"The authority is in your hands," said Ryan Pink, 19, of El Paso, who
reached Level 5 at Casa. "You can discipline kids. The younger kids they
were constantly being restrained, being punished, put in R and R for
four or five days. Nose to the wall. Or nose to the ground. And at night
you sleep in the hallways."
Many parents and youths say the behavior-management system of discipline
and punishment scares youths into sobriety and obedience. Others parents
and youths formerly enrolled, education experts, government authorities
and a former Wwasps program director say the programs profit from
struggling parents unable to handle their depressed, delinquent, defiant
or drug-abusing children.
"Their goal is not to help teens in crisis or their families," according
to a former director of one Wwasps-affiliated program, Amberly Knight.
"It is to make millions of dollars."
The financial success of Casa by the Sea is evident. Its enrollment has
nearly tripled, from about 200 youths when it opened in 1998 to more
than 570 today, almost all American teenagers. Already among the biggest
programs of its kind outside the United States, Casa by the Sea has just
spun off another program for those 18 and over.
Tuition and fees at Casa by the Sea run about $30,000 a year, half of
what some United States-based programs cost. Its staff members "do not
need and may not necessarily have" teaching credentials, Casa's contract
with parents plainly states.
Lon Woodbury, publisher of Woodbury Reports, which rates schools and
programs for troubled teenagers inside and outside the United States,
said one reason that American programs have moved abroad is "to avoid
the laws and regulations of the States." He added, "They can hire
minimum-wage staff and still charge stateside prices."
Profit margins and growth within the programs run by Wwasps appear
solid. Teen Help, the affiliation's main marketing arm, was the single
biggest corporate campaign contributor in the state of Utah in the 2002
election cycle, donating $215,290 to Republican campaigns, according to
online federal election records posted in March.
Mr. Kay, the Wwasps president, said that the proof of the programs'
success is the way in which "behavior of students generally changes
drastically." The organization's internal surveys, he said, proved that
"more than 98 percent of the schools' parents are completely satisfied."
He wrote, "No wonder these are the fastest growing Schools of their kind
in the world!!!"
The overseas "specialty boarding school" industry is growing so fast
that United States consular officials in overseas embassies say they
have no idea how many such programs exist.
"No authorities in Mexico control these institutions," said Elisa
Ledesma, a lawyer at the American Consulate in Tijuana. Consular
officers demanded and received access to several such programs in
Mexico, one official said, after they "heard horror stories from
The consular officers have the power, under the Vienna Convention, to
visit overseas programs to check on the well-being of American citizens
In January, after several such visits, the State Department issued a
notice on "behavior modification facilities" in Mexico, Costa Rica and
Jamaica. The programs may "isolate the children in relatively remote
sites" and restrict their contact with the outside world, it said.
At least seven programs in Utah, Montana, South Carolina and New York
are Wwasps affiliates, according to the organization's Web site; at
least three have faced legal challenges. Utah state officials say they
are reviewing the license of the flagship Wwasps program, Cross Creek
Manor, and that a second program, Majestic Ranch, is operating without a
Six weeks ago, according to the state attorney general's office in Utah,
a director of Majestic Ranch entered into a court agreement to have no
unsupervised contact with children after he was charged with misdemeanor
Attorneys for both programs contest the licensing challenges. South
Carolina officials have fined a third Wwasps program, Carolina Springs
Academy, $5,000 for operating without a license.
While some dissatisfied parents have sued Wwasps and its programs, the
contract that parents sign with Casa by the Sea sets high hurdles for
them. It states plainly that the program "does not accept responsibility
for services written in sales materials or brochures" or promises made
by "staff or public relations personnel" and that any dispute between a
parent and the program must be settled in a Mexican court, not in the
The Wwasps programs market themselves under a multitude of interlinked
Web sites. Their sales personnel offer thousands of dollars in
incentives to adults who recruit new youths or host Web sites
advertising the programs.
Some parents said in interviews that they enrolled their children in
programs they had never visited after browsing Web sites, brochures and
videotapes depicting happy children in a wholesome setting.
"I sent him there sight unseen," said Patti Reddoch, of Sweeny, Tex.,
who considered Dundee Ranch for her son, Edmund Brumaghin, now 17, but
chose Casa by the Sea instead. "The music he was listening to started
getting darker and he was getting more into the drugs, and that's when I
decided I needed to do something.
"So I went on the Internet and started searching around and found the
Wwasp program. I contacted them and made the arrangements, and that's
pretty much it. It didn't take me any time at all."
Mrs. Reddoch, speaking by telephone, said she then hired an "escort
service" familiar with Casa by the Sea to handcuff and transport her son
away at 5 a.m. one Sunday last September.
That morning, her son cursed her bitterly, but now his attitude is
changing, she said.
"I am very pleased with the school," said Ms. Reddoch, who said she
visited Casa by the Sea once, for a weekend, last January. "I've started
putting out brochures for referrals. I would recommend Casa to anyone."
Reality may differ from the brochures, however. "Everyone has a shaved
head," Michael Zieghelboim, who was formerly enrolled at Casa by the
Sea, said in a telephone interview. "They walk around like zombies. Most
of the staff have no training."
"Casa by the Sea was the scariest thing that ever happened to me," said
Mr. Zieghelboim, who now lives with his father in El Salvador (news -
He said that despite falling behind in his education at Casa by the Sea
at 17, he is now in the 10th grade he rates himself a success. "If I had
never gone there, I'd probably still be doing cocaine," he said.
This kind of tough discipline is an attraction for many exasperated
The program runs "a very tight ship," said Virginia Day, of Redmond,
Wash., who sent her son, Gabriel, 15, to the program in July.
"The staff that works most closely with the kids are not necessarily
professionals, and I know that this is an issue," said Ms. Day, who
called herself a very satisfied customer. "This is not a school that
specializes in a therapeutic component."
Carol Maxym, an educational consultant in Maryland, said: "What they are
looking for at Casa is compliance. Compliance is easy, if you break the
kid down enough. And compliance is cheap." She added, "The parents often
don't realize what's going on."
Youths and staff at other overseas Wwasps programs have described harsh
conditions. One was Aaron Kravig, now 19. He said he contracted scabies,
untreated for six months, ate meals of watery porridge and fish
entrails, and was schooled almost solely with "emotional growth" videos
at Tranquility Bay, the Wwasps-affiliated program in Jamaica, according
to a transcript of sworn testimony he gave last year at a Virginia state
In Costa Rica, Ms. Knight, the former director of the Wwasps-affiliated
Academy at Dundee Ranch, resigned in August after sending a letter to
the national minister of child welfare calling for the program to be
The letter said the program was "hiring unqualified, untrained, staff"
and providing "the bare minimum of food and living essentials." It said
the program "takes financial advantage of parents in crisis, and puts
teens in physical and emotional risk."
The speed with which some parents choose an overseas behavioral-modification
program for their children baffles some educational consultants.
"I find it incredible that parents would send their kids off to some
place they've heard about on the Internet," Mr. Woodbury said.
Ms. Maxym, author of "Teens in Turmoil: A Path to Change for Parents,
Adolescents and their Families" (Viking Penguin, 2000) said, "I find it
interesting that parents will spend less time finding a school for their
child than buying a new car."
Ryan Fraidenburgh's father, Bob, an aerospace engineering executive,
said he had only glanced at Casa by the Sea's "brochures that looked
like Club Med." He said he removed Ryan from the program by himself in
January 2001 after deciding he had been too hasty.
"We made a huge mistake," he said. "Until the day I die I'll regret
Ryan's mother, Carolyn, said: "We were expecting treatment, not a
minimum-wage person to watch over your kid like he was an animal in a
By TIM WEINER The New York Times